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Factoring in the human in offshore operations

Mehta, Peres receive National Academies’ Gulf Research Program grant to explore how fatigue affects offshore workers
offshore operations

A pair of Texas A&M School of Public Health professors have been awarded one of nine Gulf Research Program (GRP) Exploratory Grants by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Ranjana Mehta, PhD, and S. Camille Peres, PhD, will use the grant to explore approaches and strategies to prevent and mitigate risks related to offshore oil and gas operations. They will examine worker behavior during simulated offshore drilling scenarios at the Rig Automation Performance Improvement in Drilling Lab at the University of Texas, which houses a state-of-the-art drilling simulator.

Oil and gas operators, particularly drillers, are exposed to intensive work shift patterns and long work hours, which can lead to fatigue, thereby increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. In addition, rapid technology adoption—from the well site to the refinery—has led to the introduction of increasingly complex digital displays and operator interfaces, particularly in the driller’s cage. In such monitoring environments where drillers must be constantly alert, performance may be influenced by the display design of the consoles. Drill operators’ experience and knowledge of the interfaces may also play a role in their job performance. All of these factors contribute to preventable incidents and their associated costs. This is a critical issue, particularly as task-related fatigue can potentially interact with fatigue due to sleep deprivation during work shift transitions that can further affect operator performance.

“In order to effectively plan for scenarios that are focused on preventing a large-scale incident such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion, scenario planners have to be able to comprehensively predict fatigue-related variability in operator performance,” said Mehta, the project director. “Our research will characterize drillers’ performances on simple and complex scenarios presented to them across different work shifts and capture the physiological impact of maintaining these performances.”

With this new data, planners can consider the timing, staffing, equipment and supervision requirements, both when operator capacity is at its lowest and when it is at its highest, within the framework of the existing organizational barriers for adoption and implementation.

“There are two remarkable things about this investigation: this project will help us understand all aspects of fatigue—including cognitive and physical fatigue—not just those related to sleep and shift and will help us identify some of the causes of fatigue in the oil and gas environment,” Peres said. “Most studies in this environment now just look to see what variables are related to fatigue but are not designed in a way where we can actually identify what causes fatigue.”

The National Academies’ GRP grants are intended to jumpstart the development of novel approaches, technologies, or methods and/or the application of new expertise in how to improve the use of scenario planning. This in turn can both help advance safety culture and minimize risk in offshore oil and gas operations, and help inform those responsible for coastal community planning and response to environmental change in regions with offshore oil and gas operations.

“We hope that the scenario planning projects will help offshore training programs reduce risk by simulating real situations more closely,” said Evonne Tang, GRP’s director of external funding opportunities.

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